Dawn O’Porter: “My husband was the toast of Hollywood, but I was broke”
The Times of London
June 24, 2014
“I was told I needed a comeback. Comeback? I'm f***ing 29”
Between forkfuls of lentil salad in a New York restaurant, TV presenter Dawn O’Porter, 35, is remembering the 2011 Baftas. She was on the red carpet with her then future husband, The IT Crowd actor Chris O’Dowd (they met in 2009 and married in August 2012). He was suddenly being fêted by Hollywood after the success of the movie Bridesmaids in which he played the shaggy, sweet police officer who beguiles Kristen Wiig.
Meanwhile O’Porter (she acquired the O’ when she married O’Dowd) was, she admits frankly, in a “spiral” career-wise. Having made her name with a series of candid, first-person TV documentaries, presented with her wide-eyed spirit of enquiry, such as Super Slim Me, about slimming down to a Hollywood size zero, and My Breasts Could Kill Me, about breast cancer, which killed her mother, Carol, she had stopped being commissioned.
She felt directionless. Who was she? What was she doing on the red carpet? The dress didn’t feel right; neither did her hair. Then Brad Pitt walked over. “He said, ‘We saw the film four times.’ ‘We’ meant him and Angelina,” she laughs. “I said, ‘Hi, I’m Chris’s fiancée. He held two of my fingers, then started talking to someone else without letting go. I was counting the seconds. That was the highlight of my night.”
Lunch with the candid O’Porter is an entertaining flurry of laughter and confession. “This will be a nightmare to transcribe,” she rightly predicts. Since her 2011 nadir, she has reinvented herself as a novelist and is launching a new vintage clothing line, just as her new TV show about repurposing vintage clothes hits Channel 4. This Old Thing sees O’Porter taking women who are wedded to high street fashion into musty second-hand shops to find old things into which new life can be breathed. “I’m very proud of it. It’s not some makeover show telling you to change yourself, but just [to say] put a bit of effort into finding clothes and you’ll feel awesome.”
Her new label, Bob, is inspired by her love of the 1960s. After her mother’s death when she was seven, she was bought up by her aunt and uncle, furriers who were big players in the fashion industry. She loved her aunt’s Mary Quant dresses and the “space-age kooky bob”. Today she is wearing a $15 black cord tunic dress and her hair is cut in a heavy-fringed Cathy McGowan wedge. Her nails are shellacked white. She is slightly nervous. Her father, Bill, is over for a holiday and she’s left him to his own devices at Ground Zero. They are in New York because O’Dowd is starring on Broadway opposite James Franco in Of Mice And Men, for which O’Dowd was nominated for a Tony award for Best Actor. O’Dowd lost to Bryan Cranston, but in a great cutaway camera shot was seen swigging from a hip-flask, O’Porter giving him a gentle smile of consolation.
Their social life is starry. One night she tripped over Kiefer Sutherland’s foot in Soho House in west Hollywood, then he confessed to being O’Dowd’s biggest fan; a “wild night” ensued. Wiig is a close friend. The couple are normally based in a Spanish bungalow in busy west Hollywood rather than in one of the usual A-list retreats that stand behind wrought-iron fences in LA’s canyons and hills.
While O’Dowd gets on with being a film star, O’Porter writes. After last year’s Paper Aeroplanes, she has just published Goose, the second in a quartet of novels about two friends who, like O’Porter, grew up on Guernsey. The friends are inseparable, they grow apart, drink, snog boys and cope with the grief of losing a parent, just as O’Porter did. The first two in the series were “young adult” novels, the last two, following the grown-up women, will be for adults. O’Porter is also writing a “not totally autobiographical” film about a couple living in Hollywood and planning a “dark novel” about the consequences of a dog attack on a child.
Her parents separated before she was a year old and when her sister Jane was three. Then her mother got breast cancer, which spread: “It ended up being cervical in the end. She was just riddled.” At seven she was old enough to know something was wrong with her mother but was too young to process it. “She had a turban on and couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t know she had cancer, I didn’t know what the word was. All I remember is going to school and telling everyone my mum had died of appendicitis.
“There was no counselling on Guernsey in the 1980s,” O’Porter continues, so she spent her teens in denial, being loud and funny. “I used my personality to hide the agony I was in. The main thing I struggled with for most of my life was that I was too young to remember her clearly. That really f***ed me off. The fact I was so young and you lose so much.”
Her grief became more raw as she got older. “You know you were the centre of this person’s universe, and she was the centre of your universe, and you can’t place this emotion anywhere; it’s just gone. My main memories of her are the smell of Chanel No. 5 and her red nails. I have very sensory memories of her: her cold face waking me up from sleep. I also remember she had a boyfriend, and looking down from our playroom as she was passing a Polo between her mouth and his mouth. They were just there having a snog on the doorstep, but I love that image. It was just her being very human and being adored by somebody.”
After their mother’s death, the girls spent holidays in Scotland with their father. Today she is very close to Bill, who lives in a mobile home on the banks of Loch Lomond: “I tell him what to do, he’s my friend.” Her aunt and uncle are bohemian by comparison: “He has milk for his dinner and wouldn’t know what caviar was if it hit him.” O’Porter has no time for self-pity, but knows the loss of her mother is what drives her. A fear of running out of time made her “hardcore-ambitious”. “It made me get off Guernsey, get into drama school, pursue, pursue.”
She fell in love with TV after working as a runner on Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned. At 25, she published a book about meeting men over the internet, honing her image as a “really naughty girl about town”. Although she wasn’t having as much sex as everyone thought — it’s just when a woman talks about sex, she says, people make a number of incorrect assumptions. In terms of drugs, “I didn’t say no to much. I had a great time and no regrets . . . I wasn’t living a wild and crazy life, I was just single.”
She began presenting documentaries on out-there subjects such as polygamy, geishas and free love. “That’s who I was in my twenties. I really didn’t have a lot of fear, even if that was being naked in a room full of weird German hippies.”
From 16 to 21, O’Porter had three great relationships, then “absolutely horrendous disasters” littered her twenties. She was working in LA when she met O’Dowd. Their mutual friend Nick Frost, star of Shaun of the Dead, advised him to look her up. She kept rebuffing his advances on Facebook but invited him to her 30th birthday party. “I was dancing with my dad, and he is the Irish version of my dad. He was this big, tall, hairy Celt, with wingspan. He picked me up, threw me around the dance floor for an hour, then left, and I remember thinking ‘Who . . . what . . . was that?’”
The next morning she told her sister she’d met the man she’d marry. They moved in after six months. “Suddenly I had this big guy living in my apartment. He slept with a baseball bat beside the bed, and my apartment is really girly. He is an alpha male in the extreme. Not Roy [his character in The IT Crowd] or Officer Rhodes [Bridesmaids]. He’s incredibly strong and protective.” She thought she could never be a best friend with someone she was in a relationship with, and he has disproved that. She took on the O’ to show “something had changed” in her life, “and it looked better on a book cover than just ‘Porter’ ”.
Her career difficulties were more testing. An agent in a meeting told her: “You need a comeback.” O’Porter thought: “Comeback? I’m f***ing 29.”
When the Bridesmaids hurricane hit, “There was nothing in my inbox, and Chris’s was ping-pinging. I have no interest in being an actress and I’m not competitive, but it was a stark reminder my dream wasn’t happening. The irony was that on some of the biggest red carpets in Hollywood, on his arm, I felt like a WAG. I was really, really low. I was broke, Chris was paying the rent. I had all the positivity for him, but I would be in bed all day, miserable. I’ve no interest in being in the public eye unless it’s for my own achievements.”
When people asked what O’Porter did, O’Dowd would gallantly cut in: “Dawn makes amazing documentaries.”
After she lost a writing column, she recalls walking her dog in Hollywood and feeling like she was “nothing”. “In all honesty I accessed a lot of things about my mum. I think I needed to be really sad and sorry for myself. I wouldn’t have let it go on much longer than I did,” she laughs. “I’m not hugely materialistic but I hated being skint.” She had four sessions of therapy in London, “so I could tell someone how s*** I was feeling without them being all emotional about it”. The therapist asked her why she doubted that she could do what she had already proved she could do.
Now O’Porter has gone from feeling like the interloper on the red carpet, with people screaming O’Dowd’s name, to letting him “do his stuff” while she has a glass of wine at the bar.
She prefers writing to TV presenting. It’s hard to be the token woman on a panel show, she says. “I’d rather have three f***ing women. Why are they trying to shoehorn one?” She wonders why Richard Bacon can helm a TV show like his blokey Beer & Pizza Club, but women are stuck with Loose Women, “which doesn’t speak to me or my friends”.
Last year a lads’ mag pulled out of an interview because she refused to do the pictures they wanted. “I’m a married woman. Why would I want to pose in my bra and pants?” Another photoshoot, to publicise her career as a novelist, came with a request “to lie on a bed and look f***able”. Again, she didn’t do it.
“I don’t judge women who do,” she says. “If a woman wants to exhibit her body, then great.” She’s a staunch feminist (“It’s about instilling: be yourself, don’t say no when you mean yes, don’t be stopped”) but adds that she loves “nothing more than putting on a pinny and cooking Chris dinner. Does that make me any less of a feminist? No, I love food, I love cooking for my husband, who I love more than anyone else in the whole world. At the same time I want women to be equal to men, and I don’t understand why they’re not.”
O’Dowd is a feminist, too, she says. What about the recent GQ cover with two barely clad women draped over him? “Chris and I both felt a ‘shouldn’t-have-done-ness’ about that after it came out,” she acknowledges. “It was a huge privilege to be called ‘the king of comedy’ on the cover of GQ, and he is so not a player, it’s tongue-in-cheek, but in retrospect it did not represent who he is. I’m not anti-sex, but he’s not a lad. He’s immensely respectful of women. He was bought up in a matriarchal home.”
O’Porter wants children “because I want to see Chris as father, he’d be so endlessly brilliant — all that humour, creativity, ambition, intelligence going into our child”. She finds the idea of motherhood “slightly scary. I have this fear I’ll die on my children. My mum died ‘next year’ [at 36] and I’m healthy.” O’Porter pauses. “So what do you do? When you get older you realise how ingrained it is. I feel incredibly vulnerable, and I think if I have children I’ll feel a lot more secure. I’m not a hypochondriac, just very aware of my body. If my mum had checked herself, she might not have died.” O’Porter does a lot of work with breast cancer charities.
For O’Dowd’s night at the Tonys he wore a custom-made Gucci suit while O’Porter was in vintage Halston. She loves the idea of recasting these pieces, flying in the face of “our throwaway culture”. Her fashion venture is “a big financial deal”, and she will launch Bob with 450 pieces. She embraces standing out, rather than wearing pieces everyone else sees in Topshop. “I mean, there are worse problems in life,” says O’Porter drily, “but you can avoid that one.”
Then, laughing, she heads off into the frantic New York blare to find her dad.